By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published May 27, 2010
The threat of the year’s first May showers did not deter nearly 80 young men and women with developmental disabilities from getting outside and having fun. Whether facing each other in kickball or paddling a boat across a lake, the campers and the volunteers dedicated to them were both sure to have a good time at the 44th annual Toni’s Camp.
The camp, which took place from April 30 through May 2, is named after Toni Miralles, who dedicated 30 years of her life to the ministry to people with disabilities until her death in 2000.
Held at Camp Twin Lakes, a recreation area in Rutledge designed for those with serious illness or life challenges, Toni’s Camp offers unique spiritual and community-focused experiences and a range of activities geared toward the social and recreational needs of special education youth and adults.
Morning and evening prayer are an essential part of the retreat, which is Catholic in nature but interfaith in attendance, though a spiritually uplifting experience is just one of the many facets of the camp.
“There are several unique advantages within the structure of Toni’s Camp retreat to make things special for the campers,” said Ed McCoy, director of the archdiocesan disabilities ministry.
“The first advantage is the location. The Camp Twin Lakes site was designed from the ground up for individuals with disabilities. It has to be the most well thought out and accessible site in Georgia. The staff there is well trained and comfortable with their interactions with the campers, teens, adult volunteers and the ministry staff,” he said.
“But our greatest advantage is that the Holy Spirit is manifest throughout the weekend,” McCoy added.
The campers arrive on Friday evening and meet for dinner and a prayer service led by Msgr. David Talley, pastor at St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn and longtime Toni’s Camp volunteer.
Some campers drive themselves, others are dropped off by a parent or friend, but the bulk of the campers arrive on buses which leave from a few Catholic parishes and Catholic high schools.
After breakfast and a prayer service, Saturday is full of community and fun outdoor activities, like boating, fishing, woodworking, and arts and crafts. A very popular activity is the zip line, which allows the campers to strap into a harness and glide several hundred feet down a cable that travels over a lake before coming back to land.
Each camper is paired with a volunteer, with whom they spend the majority of their time over the weekend. The campers and volunteers spend Saturday at different stations so everyone can participate in a variety of social and recreational activities.
Both volunteers and campers stay in cabins on the campgrounds, with each building assigned a cabin captain. The volunteers assist the campers and counselors and help everything run smoothly, even helping the campers fill out a journal in which they are encouraged to write every night.
The weekend concludes with the very popular talent show and a Mass on Sunday. The talent show gives the campers the opportunity to sing, dance or perform any talents they want to share with the group. Of course, the counselors love to get involved, too.
‘How The Church Should Be’
Msgr. Talley, who knew Miralles personally, has served as a volunteer at the camp for years and feels it remains true to her vision of a place where people can come to be fully accepted. She was first inspired by the needs of her daughter, Felicia.
“It is the best experience of the Church you will ever see,” said Msgr. Talley. “God does great things for them through us. … It is an experience of community, it is an experience of prayer.”
The priest added that Toni’s Camp allows the campers to be accepted for who they are—sons and daughters of God.
“It’s how the Church should be all the time,” he said.
The roots of Toni’s Camp reach all the way back to the 1960s. Beginning in 1966, a Grey Nun, Sister Robert Therese (Dorothy Miller), directed annual summer Bible camps in the Archdiocese of Atlanta for Catholics with disabilities. These camps were initially held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, primarily to provide catch-up instruction for Catholics with disabilities who had never been prepared for the sacraments of initiation.
In 1971, Miralles took charge of the effort and moved the location to Camp Will-A-Way in Fort Yargo State Park in Winder. Over the years, the retreat evolved into “Re-Creation” at Camp Will-A-Way and then in 2004 “Re-Creation” was officially renamed “Toni’s Camp Retreat” in memory of Miralles.
During this time, the location changed to Camp Twin Lakes, off Interstate 20, near Covington. The annual retreat was typically held on Mothers Day weekend in an effort to give moms a break themselves, but this year it was held the previous weekend.
Many of the volunteers, who have returned year after year, some for decades, were influenced by Miralles directly, while others were brought to Toni’s Camp by a friend, family member or church group.
Several groups of young adults and parish contingents helped this year, including groups from St. John Neumann and the Korean Martyrs Church in Doraville.
Layne Cordova, a senior at Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell, volunteered for her third year. The recent graduate, who will be heading to the University of Mississippi in the fall, said she hopes to make it back next year.
“I’m worried about being so far away because I want to come back next year as a volunteer,” she said. “I come here for the people. Everyone who is here is incredible.”
Cordova said Toni’s Camp is “an awesome experience” and by the end of the weekend the retreat has a positive impact on those who are involved, both campers and volunteers.
“This experience with the campers usually brings about individual soul searching about basic priorities and values,” McCoy said of the younger volunteers. “As Mrs. Miralles herself once said about this impact on volunteers, ‘I think they find out what’s real. These are the most honest people in the world.’ So, for some, the Toni’s Camp experience has actually been life-changing.”
‘Best Weekend Of The Year’
Pat Tweed, a parishioner at St. Jude Church, Atlanta, where Miralles based her ministry, and a Toni’s Camp volunteer for more than 25 years, has had a similar experience with the campers. She calls it the “best weekend of the year.”
“I learn as much as I teach,” said Tweed as she sat at a table in the cafeteria after finishing lunch with her campers. “(Toni’s Camp) helps us to grow spiritually and realize we’re all part of God’s plan. … I don’t see their disabilities, I see their abilities.”
It is this mentality that Miralles had hoped to foster years ago by offering people with disabilities a chance to come together in community, without pressure for them to be anything but themselves.
Melinda Jones, who has been a camper at Toni’s Camp for the last 17 years, said she likes the archery and painting as her favorite activities, but the other campers and volunteers are what make the event truly special.
“My favorite part is all the friends,” she said, adding that she has seen several new activities added to the program over the last few years. She also likes to dance and sing, which she got to do in this year’s talent show.
“I’m a shining star,” Jones said, smiling.
The parents of the campers also have a special place in their hearts for the weekend retreat.
Shannon and Scott Sowers, parishioners at St. John Neumann Church, first heard about Toni’s Camp nearly seven years ago when one of their daughters needed service hours for school. Their daughter, Kelly, came back raving about the camp and the following year the Sowers family decided to send their 22-year-old daughter Gloria to the retreat as a camper.
“I was very nervous at first,” said Shannon Sowers, adding that Gloria is always with her and rarely goes anywhere. “Here she was going off for the first time on Mothers Day weekend.”
That was six years ago. Since then, Gloria has fallen in love with Toni’s Camp, so much so that when she comes home after the weekend, she packs her bags so she will be ready to go for the next year.
“She talks constantly about it,” said Shannon Sowers. “It is the highlight of her life.”
Toni’s Camp has been good for the entire family, giving Gloria a weekend of fun and independence while her parents schedule some time for themselves during that time.
In addition to meeting the other campers, Gloria has come to know Msgr. Talley during her experiences at Toni’s Camp, a friendship that has traveled back to St. John Neumann.
“Gloria loves Msgr. Talley,” said Shannon Sowers. “Every single Sunday she says to him before she leaves, ‘See you at camp!’”
A three-day weekend may not seem very involved, but the planning and preparation for Toni’s Camp takes a lot of work. Erika Anderson, who has been volunteering for the last 11 years, served on the core committee this year and was surprised how much goes into planning the weekend.
“This was my first year on the core committee,” she said, noting that planning for Toni’s Camp begins in the fall. “Having been to camp for 11 years, I had no idea how much work went into the planning of the weekend. I have enormous respect for everyone involved. They’re all so passionate and dedicated to Toni’s Camp. I was honored to be a part of their team.”
“In addition to helping out as a staff member, I was still a cabin captain,” Anderson added. “That meant I was still able to foster those relationships with the campers and counselors. To me, that’s what it’s really all about.”
Miralles’ impact has reached beyond the once-a-year retreat. A special religious education program was begun in 1973 by Miralles at St. Jude Church to address the needs of her own daughter as well as for other children with intellectual disabilities at the parish and seven other nearby parishes. It has thrived as the only Catholic special religious education program that has continued without interruption. This program also provides a hybrid small faith group/faith formation model for its adult members.
Miralles also established “Faith and Sharing” as a twice-a-year archdiocesan-wide special liturgy with a potluck dinner following. Individuals with intellectual disabilities are among the servers, musicians, readers, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and greeters.
“Toni Miralles was a cathedral builder, no doubt about it,” said McCoy. “And the cathedrals she left behind are the educational and service programs in place for disabled individuals here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.”